Leiden Law Blog

The P in Intellectual Property

The P in Intellectual Property

Rotate the globe on your desk and ponder: how does the world view the concept of property? With all those countries and continents, differences in legal traditions are inevitable. In our part of the world, what you have or control is considered exclusively yours. Be it tangible, or intangible. Why not reason from the inclusive end? With the P for people, we might end up living in a better place.

Property is an amazing concept. We own the tangibles of our lives such as the apartments, bikes, jeans we acquire. We own our intangibles too, such as our PhD thesis or manga drawing. We consider property to be ours, and exclusively so. This view couldn’t be more Western than the abduction of Europa by Zeus.

Unless you give permission to another, you control your tangible stuff. Generally such use precludes others from taking advantage – only you can wear your jeans at one time. But wait. Isn’t there a movement of people, in our very own Western world, that shares its handsaws, evening dresses, trailers and what have you with others, rather than sitting on it for most of the year? People that have decided that they do not need to own any of it in order to enjoy it? No need to think in extremes (“The Little Red Book”, or your toothbrush) to appreciate the freedom of mind here.

Now let’s consider the intangibles in our lives. Your PhD thesis or manga drawing can be made available to many people at the same time without impacting your personal use. Still, as a writer or designer you “own” your creation. For over time it has been agreed, by our governments and their predecessors, that ownership in intellectual property (IP) should translate into entitlement to the fruits of labour: control and remuneration, for a limited time, in the countries of choice. Individual reward for what you consider to be your efforts.

Very much Europa and Zeus, and it has brought us wealth. By other standards, for example traditional views in Africa and Australia, property is regarded communal rather than individual. Communal ownership, for example of indigenous knowledge and designs, does not seek individual reward; any compensation is assigned to all. Inspiring, for its element of inclusivity. With such concepts as Open Access and Creative Commons we are already exploring inclusivity, or non-exclusivity for publications.

We must strike a balance. Western sectors of industry protecting their IP do not see the advantages of change easily. Whatever they create or invent is instrumental to competition and profit. But the emphasis on individual gain in connection with established corporate power has diminished the potential of our IP systems to be responsive to changing needs. Whether on access to knowledge, new crop varieties, or diagnostics, the P for people is territory to be regained.

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